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The Daily Illini was founded in 1871 by the University’s first senior class, as an eight-page literary journal called The Student. Chock full of undergraduate essays on topics such as “Turbine Wheels” and “Man’s Depravity,” with a smattering of campus news, it was criticized by the student body, who yearned for a more topical publication dedicated to the University and their own experiences.
With that in mind, the editors ended publication of The Student in 1873 and announced its replacement: a newspaper called The Illini.
As a gesture, it was well-intentioned. But old habits die hard, and for many years, The Illini seemed like a continuation rather than something new. Call it The Student 2.0—a Frankenstein’s monster of campus news, ponderous essays and bad poetry.
Then in 1902, The Illini finally shed its literary pretensions and became a full-fledged daily newspaper.
By the time it added “Daily” to the masthead in 1907, it was regarded as one of the nation’s best college newspapers—a reputation it has maintained for more than a century.
A large part of the DI’s success has to do with Illini Media, the non-profit organization that oversees student media at the U of I. Created by the State of Illinois in 1911 as the Illini Publishing Company, Illini Media enables the DI and its affiliated student-run operations (radio station WPGU and the Illio yearbook) to maintain editorial independence.
It’s a setup that has allowed the DI to be a real newspaper rather than a promotional organ for the University—to seek the truth, demand accountability and provide an unfettered chronicle of student life.
As an Illinois senior, the future Pulitzer Prize winner Allan Nevins, 1912 LAS, MA 1913 LAS, HON ’53, may have summarized the DI’s role best, when he wrote, “From the most cursory study of its pages it is evident that […] The Illini has always been the vital center of student life, keeping alive sources of general University interest, forming a medium for the dissemination of college news and gossip, unifying the student body and uniting them with the faculty and the spirit of the institution. It has become truly venerable as nothing else about the campus has.”
It’s been 111 years since Nevins wrote those words, and though much about the campus now classifies as “venerable,” his point about the DI holds true. The paper remains an irreplaceable record of the University’s growth and development—a first-hand account told through the eyes of its students.
A random sampling from the DI’s back-issues—available online through the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection (idnc.library.illinois.edu/)—opens a door on the people, events and ideas that shaped the U of I, year after year, decade after decade, from student editorials about campus traditions and controversies to coverage of Illini sports, faculty research, undergraduate clubs and the grind of an average semester.
That random sampling will also show, very quickly, that the DI’s coverage extends far beyond the University of Illinois and nearby communities.
Since becoming a member of the Associated Press a century ago, the DI has been a globally focused newspaper, with international, national and local news; arts and entertainment reviews; syndicated columns by popular journalists; comics; classified ads; and a robust sports section.
One of the DI’s hallmarks has been its coverage of local reactions to world events, featuring students weighing in on the impacts that major news stories are having on their lives, from World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan to AIDS, 9/11 and COVID-19.
No matter the topic, the DI has served as a reflection of students’ interests, concerns and motivations, as they try to navigate their burgeoning adulthood and develop their own points of view.
And, despite today’s changing media landscape—newspapers closing left and right—that is what The Daily Illini remains: a forum for students to present the world as they see it and as it is, while learning how to be journalists and communicators, one issue at a time.